Everclear: So Much For The Afterglow at 25

In the 1990s, in my twenties, I would get a bit obsessive about music. I’d hit on a band I liked from the current scene – Sebadoh, Guided by Voices, Wilco – and I’d listen to their albums over and over, mapping them out to give myself meaning. I’d put their songs on mix tapes, trying hard to create a soundtrack for my imagined life. 

And for a few years between 1996-1999 or so, there were few bands I listened to more obsessively than Everclear, whose great 1997 album So Much For The Afterglow turns 25 this year. I know I shouldn’t obsess too much over the tick-tick-ticking of the clock hands, but the fact it came out a quarter-century ago now kind of melts my delicate mind. 

Sometimes, what music reminds you of feels more important than the music itself. A great album can capture a moment in your life in amber, frozen but alive, so that each chord and chorus can instantly summon up a vanished world. So Much For The Afterglow is one of those albums for me … even if objectively I’ve heard greater albums, better songs, I’ve had few that felt like they meant so much to me in the moment. 

I was 25 the year So Much For The Afterglow came out, torn between staying in my college town and starting all over in another place.

Everclear were a Portland, Oregon band led by Art Alexakis, who turned his troubled broken-home youth and drug addictions into his muse. Their first three albums – World of Noise, 1995’s loud and defiant Sparkle and Fade and its briefly ubiquitous doom anthem “Santa Monica,” and Afterglow – were a kind of trilogy mining Alexakis’ pain into catchy rock songs. They were a very ’90s act, post-peak grunge, but heaps above the standard of bands like Creed or Bush.

There was no shortage of bands, grunge and otherwise, turning personal pathos into pop hits in the 1990s of course, from Nirvana to Alice In Chains to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Yet Alexakis married his demons with rock for raw, confessional tunes that somehow felt honest to me, even if they were views from a world I rarely visited. “Normal Like You,” “I Will You Buy You A New Life” and “Father of Mine” all yearned for a world where he didn’t feel like an outcast, where you could try and find a happy ending.

We imagine connections to albums we love. The heroine of “Amphetamine” shared a name with a woman I was madly obsessed with at the time, while the narrator in “White Men In Black Suits” “moved to San Francisco just to see what I could be,” almost perfectly mirroring my own life changes at the time. (OK, I couldn’t afford San Francisco proper, but I did move back to the sultry Central Valley.)

In Everclear’s best songs, everyone is broken, yet hopeful in a battered way. At my worst moments in the chaotic 1990s, just knowing that someone out there felt the same as me mattered. So I bonded with Everclear, hard. 

Unfortunately, it kind of felt like Alexakis said the most important things he had to say with the first few Everclear albums. All the other original band members left, and by the early 2000s, the songs turned from angsty to preachy and the same themes kept being hit over and over. When a band starts unnecessarily re-recording old songs, you know they’ve hit a bit of a wall.

None of that takes away from how much I love Everclear’s 90s work. 

It is rich with the promise and peril of being suspended at a point in life where you could be anything, even if you won’t actually end up being most things – when you are Everything Everywhere All At Once, to quote the amazing new movie I saw the other night.

And now it is 25 years later, and perhaps much of the raw edge I felt at 25 upon listening to Everclear has been burnished off by the weight – and sometimes, the cruelties – of time. But I pop on “Santa Monica” or “I Will Buy You A New Life” and for a moment I am there again, jittery with potential and ready for all the world’s bruises and brief joys to knock me around all over again. 

Here’s the Thing – the superhero as working-class stiff

Most superheroes are a little bit stiff, to be honest. They tend to be either godlike and unapproachable like Superman and Thor, or insanely focused like Batman or Dr. Strange. Even a guy like Spider-Man, whose whole schtick is being a friendly-neighbourhood sort, is still an insanely smart multi-tasking genius who started out as a shy teenage outcast. 

There’s not a lot of superheroes you’d want to have a beer with. Except for Ben Grimm, The Thing, who might just be the most everyman hero in comics. 

The Thing, one-quarter of the Fantastic Four, went through a curious period of solo stardom in the ‘70s and some of the ‘80s, striking out on his own with the classic team-up title Marvel Two-In-One and later, his own solo book for 36 issues. These days, he’s kind of mid-level superhero famous and a series of inadequate Fantastic Four movies haven’t helped his situation, but for a while there, he was an A-list attraction. 

The Thing didn’t start out as an obvious breakout star – in his first appearance in Fantastic Four #1 he still talks in grandiose Silver Age comics tones: “Bah! Everywhere it is the same! I live in a world too small for me!” For a while, he was just another tortured superhero like The Hulk or Iron Man. 

But after a while, although he’d always be a little bit agonised over his rocky curse and cut off from the human race, Ben Grimm seemed to accept his lot. He loosened up, peppering his language with slangy Brooklyn-ese banter, including that great catchphrase – “It’s clobberin’ time!” He drank beer and hosted superhero poker games. He wasn’t a dummy – he was a rocket pilot, after all, and before the comics aged beyond it being plausible, a World War II hero – but he was also very much an everyman. Over time, it was also revealed he was one of the first Jewish superheroes.

By the 1970s, the Thing was this cigar-smoking, wisecracking street poet of a character, grumbling away like Archie Bunker covered in orange rocks. There really wasn’t another voice quite like his. While they both were street-level superheroes from poor backgrounds, Spider-Man or Daredevil still tended to speak with a hint of stiffness, in that faux hipster I’m-down-with-the-kids lingo Stan Lee’s writers turned out reliably.

The Thing was always at home, which is why teaming him up with pretty much every hero in the Marvel Universe went down so well. Who wouldn’t want to have a beer with Ben Grimm?

He wasn’t a logical choice to lead a marquee team-up title, teaming up with everyone from The Man-Thing to The Living Mummy over 100 issues. The ‘70s were the glory day of team-ups (before pretty much every comic was just a team-up on a regular basis), but the big titles were Marvel Team-Up, starring Spider-Man, Brave and Bold starring Batman, and DC Comics Presents starring Superman himself. The Thing wasn’t quite at the same level of fame as these characters, but maybe that’s why the run of Marvel Two-In-One is still such a joy to read years later. The comics were often great little odd-couple gems of character moments, with cantankerous Ben bouncing off guest stars from Ghost Rider to Moon Knight to Captain America, always taking them down a few pegs. 

Despite being covered in orange rocks, Ben Grimm often felt like the most human of Marvel heroes for big chunks of the ‘70s and ‘80s. In one of the great team-up stories of all time, he even sat down for a few beers with longtime foe the Sandman, and by the end of the tale even convinced the villain to reform, with barely a punch thrown. It’s hard to picture Batman doing that. 

Irreverent wit became more common as comics reached the age of Seinfeldian irony – witness the rise of Deadpool, Harley Quinn, Squirrel Girl or She-Hulk. But The Thing was a bit different – he never broke the fourth wall, or did parody riffs on other heroes – he was just, simply and unchangeable, his own irrascible irreverent self, and at his best, made every other hero look like they were in black-and-white next to his orange bricks. 

How the Return Of The Jedi Storybook ruined my childhood

Spoiler warnings are serious business, even if it’s harder and harder to avoid finding out things in this 24-7 endlessly scrolling world we live in without seriously muting your social media diet. But decades ago, one of the biggest movies of my lifetime got seriously spoiled by… a storybook.

Nearly 40 years on, I’m still a little annoyed about how Return Of The Jedi worked out for me.  

The year 1983 was a long time before the idea of “spoiler culture” developed. Culture was typically more rooted in time. You saw a TV show when it aired, or you didn’t. You saw a movie like everyone else did during the few weeks it ran, or you didn’t and waited years for it to air on TV. If someone told you who shot JR, you just nodded. We didn’t really worry about spoilers so much then, or ponder the damage they could do. 

But I’ll never forgive the Return of the Jedi Storybook which, mystifyingly, spoiled George Lucas’ sequel and quite possibly the biggest cliffhanger ending in recorded history for me weeks before the movie came out. 

Let me tell you, there were few bigger dramas in the life of 12-year-old Nik and his friends than imagining for years what might have happened next after the incredibly downbeat, traumatising final scenes of Empire Strikes Back in 1980. Luke’s hand cut off! Vader his father? Han Solo locked in a block of whatever the heck carbonite was, hauled off to Jabba the Hutt? 

Kids today can literally not imagine how stressful this all was. It made Avengers: Endgame seem like a cool sea breeze by comparison. 

I remember watching the first trailer for Return of the Jedi with a fanboy’s anticipation. But when it came time to actually see the movie itself, I already knew what was going to happen. 

I got the storybook as part of one of those nifty “school book clubs” that were all the rage back in the day, and I was kind of astonished to see that this Return of the Jedi Storybook wasn’t some fanboy collection of images and interviews, but the ENTIRE STORY of the movie, weeks before it opened. Why did I get it so early? Why did they reveal the whole story? These days, there would be media blackouts and embargoes galore, but in 1983, I guess a kid’s tie-in book wasn’t seen as a state secret. 

(According to the “Wookiepedia,” which has to be authoritative with a name like that, the Jedi storybook was published May 12, 1983, about two weeks before Jedi hit theatres around May 25. In my hazy pre-teen memories, it felt like it came out months before Jedi.) 

In my memory I flipped through the pages, astonished to see pictures of Luke Skywalker in stark black clothing, Jabba the Hutt, the Emperor, Leia in a fetishy slave outfit that awakened all young Nik’s carnal rumblings, and more, and the plot of the entire movie laid out in simplified easy-reader prose. The storybook was meant as a flimsy souvenir for young padawan like myself, to re-read and savour… after seeing the damned movie! I do remember feeling vaguely let down… was this the story I had hoped for the past three years? Or was I just not really enjoying seeing it in pantomime storybook form? The merits of Jedi have been argued for the past 39 years, but wherever you stand I’d argue it’s best to have actually seen the movie instead of just reading about it first. 

I can’t recall clearly now if I shared the Jedi plot revelations with my friends at the time, but I probably did. I was the kind of kid who ate too much at Halloween, who sometimes snuck looks at Christmas presents. If older me had been there to Marley’s ghost himself, I’d have warned about the perils of giving in to temptation. I should have put the book in a locked safe once I realised what it was. It would’ve been a lot cooler to be surprised by the twists and turns of Return of the Jedi. It would’ve been nice. 

Hell, I wouldn’t have minded being surprised by an Ewok, even. 

Breaking News: My Top 10 Journalism Movies

It’s been a week for movies and the media. I was part of the team live-blogging the Oscars over at RNZ this week which, um, took an interesting turn about 2/3 of the way into the show, you might have heard. 

I love it when one of my favourite things, the movies, intersects with my profession for many years now, journalism. And after the Oscars live-blogging marathon Monday night, I had to unwind with one of my favourite movies about journalism (which one? scroll to the end*, my friend). 

The art and craft of journalism has long fascinated filmmakers and resulted in some terrific movies – including that one many people regard as the best of all time, Citizen Kane. I sat down to write about 10 or so of my favourite journalism movies and ended with a sprawling list. I narrowed it down, and from the start I eliminated any documentaries (which are a form of journalism itself). Ever since I was a kid, the idea of journalism has appealed to me, even if in real life it’s not all glam and scoops. 

This list of my Top 10 Journalism Movies includes ones that idealise the profession like crazy, ones that just use it as a prop for a comedy or a romance, and a few that really delve into the gritty hard yards that make a truly great story. Some of them really capture what it’s like to be a journo, and some of them really capture what we all wish it was like to be a journo. 

In alphabetical order: 

Ace In The Hole (1951) – The late great Kirk Douglas in his finest role, as a cartoonishly conniving tabloid journalist exiled to the rural sticks who stumbles on the “story of the century” when a local man gets trapped in a cave. Billy Wilder’s cynical noir takes us deep inside the media circus that ensues, and we watch in real time as Kirk’s Chuck Tatum slowly loses what’s left of his soul. We’ve had countless “boy stuck in a well” type media sensations in the decades since, but nothing has ever captured the dark side of journalism better. 

All The President’s Men (1976) – There’s no way any list of journalism movies could ignore this one. Oh, for the days when Watergate was the biggest scandal a White House could imagine. There’s no movie that shows the painstaking, frustrating detective side of journalism better than this masterpiece, with Woodward and Bernstein’s investigations portrayed with stark realism despite glossy Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing their parts. The click of typewriters and hours on the landline phone, the endless cigarettes, the newsroom almost entirely run by white men wearing ties – this is a vanished world now, and journalism is probably better for leaving a lot of that behind, but nothing quite captures what it was like “back in the day” better than this film. 

Almost Famous (2000) – The life that William Miller leads in Cameron Crowe’s gentle and bittersweet coming-of-age comedy is pretty much exactly the life I imagined I might have when I started scribbling as an entertainment journalist in the mid 1990s. Spoiler: I didn’t go on tour with Stillwater or fall in love with Penny Lane. Crowe’s movie is warmly sentimental, but in the best possible way. With the acerbic interjections of the much-missed Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs to balance things out, Almost Famous shows us a fairy-tale fantasy of journalism that I can’t help falling in love with every time I watch it. 

Anchorman (2004) – Absurdly goofy? Sure! The gem in Will Ferrell’s run of wacky comedies is a spoof of journalism, but it’s also subtly a very accurate satire of the alpha-male mentality that existed in newsrooms for decades, one that was still quite rampant just as I was entering the industry. It’s only in the last few decades that newsrooms have become a bit more diverse, and in between all the gags Anchorman accurately captures what it’s like when journalists start to believe their own hype and let their ego take over. (See also: Any number of the ‘outrage merchants’ who chatter and moan daily on American news networks today.)

Broadcast News (1987) – The great journalism romantic comedy, even beating out Cary Grant’s His Girl Friday. The late William Hurt, Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks are a perfect trio of striving TV journalists in the 1980s, capturing the mix of solid professionalism, glossy vapid good looks and gender battles that defined the era. James L. Brooks carefully keeps all his characters human despite their foibles, and it’s a movie that’s as much in love with journalism and it gently mocks it. And for my money, the “Albert Brooks sweating” scene is one of the funniest journalism fails ever portrayed on screen. 

Citizen Kane (1941) – The grandfather of all journalism movies, even if it’s perhaps more about the corruption of power than anything else. But Orson Welles captures the era when news publishers were almost kings in his very lightly fictionalised take on William Randolph Hearst, and how Kane uses the immense power of the press to build himself a perfect world – without ever really knowing what to do once he gets it. 

The French Dispatch (2021) – The newest movie on this list, Wes Anderson’s kaleidoscopic anthology imagines a series of articles in a New Yorker-type magazine in its final issue. Anderson’s unique aesthetic has never been more pronounced than it is in this incredibly dense, ornate movie, which I immediately wanted to see a second time so I could go back and catch all the jokes and references I missed the first time around.

Shattered Glass (2003) – For a while there in the pre-social media world, scandals about plagiarist journalists were all the rage. This tense and darkly funny under-seen gem looks at the curious Stephen Glass, who made up magazine scoops left and right until he was caught. Featuring a never-better performance by Hayden Christensen, who will wipe your memories entirely of his hammy Anakin Skywalker, and terrific work by Peter Sarsgaard as the editor who exposes him.

Spotlight (2015) – A solid companion to All The President’s Men, set at the twilight of a certain kind of journalism, before job cuts gutted newsrooms worldwide. This deserving Oscar winner showcases a Boston investigative journalists team and their stunning work uncovering sex abuse cover-ups within the Catholic Church. With an absolutely top-notch cast including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Liev Schreiber, it’s another movie that patiently shows the hard, hard work that goes into breaking a massive story, and yet makes it exciting as any thriller. 

Zodiac (2007) – When journalism turns into obsession. David Fincher’s sprawling, sinister epic about the hunt for San Francisco’s Zodiac killer avoids tidy serial murder movie cliches or easy closure, and somehow that makes it even more disturbing than any blood-soaked horror might. Robert Downey Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo are terrific as journalists who slowly lose their minds trying to find a killer, and Fincher masterfully escalates a sense of dread, which is inextricably tied to the one single question that drives almost every journalist’s career: I want to know

Clustered together at #11: His Girl Friday, The Sweet Smell of Success, Fletch, The Paper, Good Night And Good Luck, The Philadelphia Story, Adaptation, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

(*So what did I watch after Oscars live-blogging? Well, after a night that hit the peaks of drama and absurdity, what else could I watch but Anchorman for the 458th time? What can I say … sometimes journalism really is like being trapped in a glass case of emotion.)

Movies I Have Never Seen #16: The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

What is it: Long before she directed Wayne’s World, Penelope Spheeris was known as a pioneering documentary filmmaker for her chronicling of the gritty reality of LA’s music scenes. Over three films from 1981 to 1998, she covered punk and metal stars and never-weres, fans and bands with an unsparing eye. The first of her movies, 1981’s Decline of Western Civilization, looked at bands like Black Flag, Germs, X, the Circle Jerks and Fear in squalid, sweaty detail, and it’s widely regarded as one of the best music documentaries ever made. 

Why I never saw it: Despite its cult status, Decline and its two sequels were barely released and almost impossible to watch for decades. Long ago, when I worked at video stores and paged through ink-stained fanzines, I’d hear about these movies a lot, but pre-YouTube or eBay, good luck ever actually watching them. Finally, a few years back, the entire series was released on DVD with a bunch of cool bonuses, and I finally sat down recently to watch them. Can punk still shock more than four decades on?

Does it measure up to its rep? Music documentaries are one of my favourite genres, whether they’re behind the scenes concert footage, making-of histories, birth-to-death storytelling or day-in-the-life voyeurism. Decline  is a little bit of all of the above. These aren’t superstars – X and Black Flag are probably the best known of the bands here, and this is a pre-Henry Rollins Black Flag at that. Even by 1979 and 1980, punk was a bit past its first wave, and so you’ve got a variety of fiery young bands trying to figure out who they are – whether it’s the bludgeoning rage of Circle Jerks and Fear, the angst of Germs and Black Flag or the more arty, performative work of almost-forgotten bands like Catholic Discipline, this is a snapshot of a moment in time but an anger that’s still understandable today. We see heaps of roiling, brutal men in mosh pits, slamming against each other in an intimate way that seems even more invasive in a pandemic world. Spheeris has a knack for capturing the propulsive motion of punk, with a visceral touch that makes you feel like you’re back in these crowded, grotty rooms decades ago. We see the bands off stage – Black Flag in an insanely over-graffitied squalid crash pad, The Germs’ doomed, mumbly lead singer Darby Crash cooking eggs and playing with his pet tarantula. (Crash would be dead at 22 of a drug overdose suicide before this movie even came out.) There’s a tinge of hopelessness to Decline, especially when Spheeris talks to the fans like nihilistic skinhead Eugene, but that’s balanced out by some incredibly passionate performances, like young Black Flag singer Ron Reyes screaming out “Depression’s gonna kill me.” It’s strange to think that now, 40+ years on, most of these angry young men and women are either nearly senior citizens – or gone. Unlike slick, polished reality TV versions of life, the squalor and power of Decline never feels fake. 

Worth seeing? Decline of Western Civilization isn’t for those with gentler musical tastes – while some of the bands like X are excellent musicians whose snappy tunes still hold up well today, all of them are loud and confrontational. The Germs are barely holding a tune, with the chaotic power of their only album turned into a muddy, jagged roar. Spheeris closes Decline with a terrifying, mesmerising set by Fear, whose lead singer is shown as a bare-chested, swaggering Johnny Rotten on steroids spitting out homophobic and sexist taunts as the kids in the mosh pit smash into each other. It’s like a vision of Dante’s inferno, and it’s awful, yet at the same time, it’s amazing – the power of punk at its most primal, with a chorus screaming “I don’t care about you / F— you!” Fear’s thundering, cruel set seems to sum up everything that’s come before it. Punk could be awesome and it could be ugly and it could often be both at the same time, and Spheeris’ magnificent documentary captures it in all its complicated sprawl. I’m definitely moving on next to check out 1988’s equally cult but slightly more absurd hair-metal saga Decline of Western Civilization II and the reportedly even darker street kids-focused Part III, but the first Decline movie still packs the punch of a brawl in a mosh pit. It isn’t meant to make you feel good, but like punk itself, it’s meant to make you feel something. 

Photographic pandemic memories of concerts past

Like a lot of people, I miss concerts. Heaving groups of strangers locked in communion with a singer and a song, losing themselves. I’m hoping that we might finally get to a point soon where thanks to vaccination I might be able to go to a show again; I’ve got tickets to see one of my favourite bands in May I’m really hoping doesn’t fall through.

In the meantime I’ve found myself looking back at concerts past. In the hazy pre-iPhone era, you couldn’t really easily take photos at a show, and until recently, my phones were crap enough that I couldn’t take a good photo even then. So many of the great gigs I’ve seen over the years only exist in my memories – Elvis Costello triumphing for more than three hours one night in Oregon; The Pixies shredding on their first reunion tour; blues legend RL Burnside stunning a packed Missisippi bar; LCD Soundsystem commanding a sweaty packed tent; Gang Of Four showing post-punk’s power never died, and many more.

I’ve taken a lot of terrible, blurry pictures at concerts, and a few good ones. I look at them a lot now, remembering the murmur and buzz of the crowd and the glare of the lights and the distinctive sound of one perfect song, and an audience united in singing along…

Lorde, 2017
Nick Cave, 2017
Peter Murphy of Bauhaus, 2018
The D4, Auckland City Limits, 2018
Elvis Costello, 2013
Amanda Palmer, 2020
A crowded house at Crowded House, 2021
Sleater-Kinney, 2016
The Rolling Stones, from a distance, 2014
Midnight Oil, 2017
Reb Fountain, 2021
Kamasi Washington, 2019
Neil Young and Crazy Horse, 2013

The Marx Brothers, Duck Soup, and three perfect scenes

War, pestilence, disease, death and really annoying people on social media. Times like these call for the Marx Brothers.

It’s been nearly a century since Groucho, Chico, Harpo and sometimes Zeppo stormed cinema screens, and their surreal, multi-faceted anarchy is still very much the cure for what ails the spirit. 

I got away from it all with a double-feature of Marx classics at one of our awesome local revival cinemas last weekend, and found that no matter how many times I’ve seen stuff like Duck Soup and Animal Crackers, they still lighten my mental load. 

Of the classic early comedy teams I adore, from Chaplin to Keaton to Laurel and Hardy to Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers stand out because they’re pure id … and just a little bit dangerous. Most comedy teams had a kind of smart one and a kind of dumb one, but in this trio, they’re all a little bit of both.

The Marxes weren’t quite as well served by the movies as Chaplin or Keaton – they didn’t creatively mastermind their own films, which were never as groundbreaking and perfectly sculpted as something like City Lights or The General. Their early movies are hilarious but also bogged down by cheesy romantic sidebars and interminable songs; their later movies often felt strained and tired as the brothers themselves entered their 50s and 60s and bowed to the whims of studio heads. 

But for that sweet spot of four or five movies that hit the screens 90 years ago now, they were a whirling dervish of Groucho’s wit, Chico’s wordplay, Harpo’s pantomime acrobatics and Zeppo… well, Zeppo was there, too. There’s no filler in perhaps their greatest moment, 1933’s Duck Soup, a fast-moving war satire with no romantic subplots and even poor Harpo refused a chance to play his harp. While there’s funnier gags scattered throughout all their movies, there’s nothing quite as unrelenting. Duck Soup barely runs over an hour, but you can distill it even further by boiling it down to a mere three scenes that show the Marx Brothers at their very best. 

The Marxes were unpredictable and a wee bit unhinged, breaking furniture, grabbing women (in rather un-#Metoo ways, I’ll admit), wrestling strangers, pushing the limits of social propriety. The Three Stooges were violent and chaotic, too, but very childlike. The Marx trio always felt vaguely adult, dada and surrealism given form in flesh, and I’d always picture them whipping out cards, dice and booze between scenes. This scene with Harpo and Chico is one of the Marxes’ intricately building symphonies of insanity, escalating from a shouting match with a lemonade vendor to beautifully choreographed, maddening brutal psych-warfare against the poor befuddled vendor: 

…Meanwhile, while Groucho and Chico were masters at verbal japes and insults and malapropisms, one of the most beloved Marx routines is this elegantly simple, but endlessly comic “mirror gag.” All you need to know is that Harpo and Chico have both ended up disguised as Groucho, running around a wealthy lady’s house in a grand farce until they all end up combining in this one glorious scene: 

But when it comes down to it, the number one thing I think of when I think of the Marx Brothers remains Groucho’s sardonic wit and raised eyebrows, able to cut to the chase and knock any windbag down to size. This astounding little monologue towards the climax of Duck Soup is particularly funny because it’s the rare case where Groucho, as the beleaguered President Rufus T. Firefly, manages to make himself the butt of the joke, and talk himself into going to war in the space of a few sentences. In a world where we’re still seeing madmen go to war for stupid reasons, there’s something vaguely comforting to me in this scene watching Groucho show how pointless and ego-feeding it all is, 89 years ago now. 

The Marx Brothers have been gone for decades, but they’re still making me laugh nearly a century past their peak. Now when you think about it, that’s pretty funny.

Superman and Batman and the adventures of trying to be a dad

The illusion of change is one of the big things that keeps comic books going for 800, 900 issues, decades after they started. Pretty much every character in comics has died and come back at least three or four times, so excuse me if I yawn when they say Spider-Man/Batman/Wolverine is going to die, again. Show me something new. Like a superhero being a parent.  

They might die a lot, but one thing superheroes never did for the longest time was grow up, get married and have children of their own. 

That started to change in the 1990s, when they let Spider-Man get married for a while (since wiped away in one of those cosmic hand-wavings) and Superman get hitched to Lois Lane (surprisingly, still going strong years later). With wedding bells ringing, surely children aren’t far behind?

For a while there, when most superheroes had a kid, it meant they would die horribly or be revealed as imaginary or what-if stories or something. Most egregiously, Spider-Man actually had a daughter who vanished mysteriously years ago because Marvel didn’t like the idea of Spider-Man actually having a kid. 

Yet that’s changed. One of the most popular – and genuinely enjoyable – comics of 2021 turned out to be Superman: Son Of Kal-El, starring Jon Kent, the teenage son of Clark Kent, a hip, bisexual millennial who could’ve been an awful “woke” cartoon but has turned out to be a refreshing and empathetic take on the Man of Steel. A slightly different version of this story with Superman and Lois having two sons has become one of my favourite superhero TV shows in recent years. 

And a while back, Batman had a son, Damian Wayne, with his enemy’s daughter Talia al Ghul. This kid was a brutal, dark mirror to Batman, raised by his criminal foes, trained as an assassin and grown into a grim and efficient new Robin. Damian has endured since his introduction in 2006, maturing to become less violent and conceited and an actual hero of sorts. The new Superman and Robin have been an enjoyable double-act in comics too, Jon Kent’s sincerity playing well off Damian’s cynicism. 

The idea of Batman and Superman having sons was a bit of a fantastic what-if for years when they were imagined as rebellious 1970s hipsters, so it’s been surprising to see the idea emerge and stick around in canon. Jon Kent’s been around for 7 years, Damian pushing 16 years. It gives these 80-year-old superheroes a fresh direction to move in, and yet the original Batman and Superman are still allowed to exist too, mentoring and off having their own adventures. I actually find Superman more enjoyable as a character now that he’s a father.

I’m not saying they won’t decide to up and kill Jon Kent sometime soon, but comics creators seem generally content to let a hero’s kids live for now. Some, like Wolverine or Hulk, have ‘evil’ estranged children, or some like the Flash and Green Arrow have children they end up separated from for years. (Being a good parent is far less common than just being a parent in comics.) The Fantastic Four were one of the few characters allowed to have a child back in the old days, although little Franklin Richards was always under threat of death or cosmic disintegration or something. But the FF has a second kid now too, and a whole little blended “family” of assorted young folk that they’re mentoring – a sensible evolution for a comic that’s always been about the idea of family. 

As the print comics fan base ages up and more and more young people are TikTokking or whatever, comics readers maybe are a little less turned off by the idea of Batman having a Bat-spawn. They identify with a Bat-Dad a bit more than they once might have.

One thing you’ll rarely see in comics, though, are superheroes parenting babies or toddlers, or doing the boring hard yards of diapers, late nights and play-dates. In a surprisingly common comics trope, both Jon Kent and Damian Wayne were “accelerated in age” in various oddball comic-book ways so they could run around with their dads, because honestly, super-teenagers are far more interesting than super-babies would be. 

Which is probably the right call. I mean, nobody is really clamouring for the return of Super-Baby, are they? 

Mark Lanegan, grunge, and the gone generation

Photo Steve Gullick

Mark Lanegan was not a household name. But when I think of grunge – that Seattle sound, that briefly hip ‘90s trend – I often think first of Lanegan’s husky baritone with the Screaming Trees, and all the ache and strength it conveyed.

Lanegan died suddenly at 57 this week, and for a certain brand of music lover, it was a painful blow to lose this troubled, damaged yet powerful figure.

Lanegan showed a way out of just being a grunge star. The bands that are left intact are mostly ones like Pearl Jam or Mudhoney, who’ve settled into amiable patterns where their music isn’t a heck of a lot different in 2022 than it was in 1992.

When Kurt Cobain died, half my lifetime ago, the thing that struck me hardest was that we’d never know what he might have done next, never follow up on the intriguing directions things like In Utero and MTV Unplugged hinted at. Lanegan, more than any other musician in the grunge era, picked up his longtime friend Cobain’s challenge and continued exploring and innovating until the day he died. 

I loved Screaming Trees, who bubbled under the superstar level of bands like Nirvana. Their single “Nearly Lost You” was their biggest popular hit, but the band – all towering, lumberjack like characters who seemed as ominious as their cartoony threat of a name – were a powerful machine that were driven by Lanegan’s urge to be more than just a screamer. Like TAD, another band a bit too raw to make it big, they felt like whispers and ghosts of the Northwest backwoods, sasquatch with guitars. 

The Trees combusted, and Lanegan was different when he branched out into underrated, heavily diverse solo work. Always a looming, dangerous figure, haunted by addictions and violence he wrote compellingly about in recent memoirs, Lanegan’s very voice let you know he had seen the darkness and stared deep. Many obituaries focused on how with the punishment he inflicted on himself, Lanegan should’ve been dead years ago.

As he aged, he became a kind of Seattle fusion of Nick Cave and Johnny Cash, charged with Old Testament authority and willing to experiment, collaborate and cast his sound far outside a narrow grunge template. He swerved from the dusty country-fried songwriting of Whiskey For The Holy Ghost to the sweet-and-sour collaborations with Isobel Campbell, the ‘70s hard rock stomp of his work with Queens Of The Stone Age, to dabbling in dark synth-pop in Blues Funeral. His final album, Straight Songs of Sorrow, seemed to amalgamate all of his interests to craft a dark, autobiographical mini-masterpiece. 

It was also reminded me of how so many of the great voices of his peers have left far too early, turning grunge – a term many couldn’t stand, but it’s stuck like glue – into kind of a lost generation. There will be no big the-whole-band-gets-back-together reunion tours for Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains or Screaming Trees. 

The list is long – Kurt Cobain, of course (suicide, 27), Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland (drugs, 48), Chris Cornell (suicide, 52), pre-grunge/glam act Mother Love Bone’s singer Andrew Patrick Wood (heroin, just 24), Gits singer Mia Zapata (murdered, 27); Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley (heroin/cocaine, 34) and Mike Starr (prescription overdose, 44), Hole’s Kristin Pfaff (overdose, 27); poppier act Blind Melon’s lead singer Shannon Hoon (cocaine, 28). 

Music and young death are no strangers, of course, and there’s been “lost generations” before, from the deaths of Janis, Jimi and Jim (you don’t even need to say their last names, do you?) to the rap slayings of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. to the present, in the deaths of those like XXXTentacion and Lil Peep. 

But grunge was my soundtrack to an age where you listen to music more obsessively than other, and nobody wants to watch their own generation slowly be washed away.

I lived a boring, drama-free 1990s compared to the antics of Lanegan, Cobain and their peers – rare binges of tequila and vodka were my peak indulgence – but the appeal of grunge to me was that the yearning of singers like Lanegan felt universal. We all ache in different ways. We all have addictions. I realised a long time ago that I’d easily get hooked on some of the temptations of the world given half a chance. I was an amateur at addiction, but something in me responded to Lanegan’s deep, groaning voice. 

Friend Bob got to see him in his elemental power a few years back, and I’m very jealous. Lanegan overcame his demons and was clean for years, but a bout with COVID-19 last year nearly killed him and I wouldn’t surprised if it led directly to his early death. 

Once upon a time, I would’ve said that making it to 57 was a decent run. But it doesn’t seem that way when you get close to it. Mark Lanegan was a guide through some of the darkness of life, wrapped heavily in all its shadows himself. He might have been the last lingering reminder of the power of grunge behind the hype and sadness, and that generation is gone and never coming back.